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History of the Loyalists: Forts Clinton and Independence Taken

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History of the Loyalists: Forts Clinton and Independence Taken
James Hannay
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Attack on Fort Montgomery—American Losses-150 Loyalists Confined on American Vessels and Burned to Death.



Forts Montgomery and Clinton were under the command of the brothers George and James Clinton, the former of whom was the revolutionary governor of New York. On the east side of the river General Putnam was in command, with his headquarters at Fort Constitution, opposite West Point. General Sir Henry Clinton began to make his preparations to ascend the North River as soon as he was reinforced from England. Kemble, in his journal, informs us that at five in the afternoon of October the third, the 57th and 63rd regiments, Colonel Fanning’s King's American regiments, and Bayard’s Orange Rangers marched and embarked under the command of General Tryon, in Spiking Devil’s Creek. The 7th, 26th and 52nd having embarked in transports the day before. On the following day, according to the same authority Sir Henry Clinton marched with a detached corps, regiment of de Trumbach, Chasseurs Emmirch corps, Grant’s New York volunteers and Robinson’s Loyal American regiment, with 100 Highlanders to Tarrytown, where the transports and Tryon's corps had arrived, and that the whole embarked and sailed by one o'clock next morning. This force numbered about 3,000 men, and it will be observed that four of the regiments which composed it were Loyalists, showing that these corps had become efficient and fit for any service, Clinton’s march to Tarrytown was intended to induce General Putnam to believe that Peakskill was his destination. To strengthen this belief and divert Putnam's attention from the two forts, Montgomery and Clinton, which were the objects of attack, Clinton landed at Verplank's Point, eight miles below Peakskill. General Putman fell back on the approach of the British to the high ground to the rear of Peakskill, and sent a messenger to Governor Clinton desiring him to send to his aid as many troops as he could spare from the fort. The militia kept pouring into Putnam's camp so that on the afternoon of the 5th he had between 2,000 and 3,000 men with him. Thus Putnam was completely deceived, and while he was preparing for an imaginary attack Sir Henry Clinton had leisure to carry out the object of his expedition. Early on the morning of the 6th 2,100 British were landed at Stoney Paint, on the west side of the Hudson. Bayard’s Orange Rangers and Fanning's Kings American regiment were left to keep guard at Verplank's Point, while the two other Loyalist corps formed a part of the 2,100 men that were landed at Stony Point. The force intended for the attack on Fort Montgomery consisted of the 52nd and 57th regiments, numbering 500 men, and the Loyal American regiment and New York Volunteers, numbering 400, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Campbell of the 52nd. This force was to traverse the path of the Dunderburg or Thunder Hill, and having passed this mountain were to proceed, by a detour, of seven miles round the hills, and appear in the rear of Fort Montgomery. While the left column was making this circuit General Vaughan, with the Grenadiers, Light Infantry, 26th and 63rd regiments, one company of Highlanders and a few Hessian chasseurs, 1,200 men in all, marched toward Fort Clinton, while Major General Tryon brought up the rear with the 7th Regiment and the regiment of Trumbach, leaving a battalion on Thunder Hill to heap up communication with the fleet. While the land troops were thus advancing, three frigates proceeded up the river to a position a little below fort Independence.

The march to gain the rear of the two forts was a long and difficult one, and was slightly opposed by detachments of the enemy. Both forts were summoned, and when the demand to surrender them was refused they immediately assaulted and carried them in the cours of half an hour, but not without severe loss. Lieut. Campbell, the commander of the left column, and Major Grant who commanded the New York volunteers being killed; 41 rank and file were killed and 147 wounded, in this gallant affair. It is no small honor to the two Loyalist corps which took part in the attack on Fort Montgomery, that they were considered worthy of such a distinction and were employed in such an arduous service instead of British regiments. The loss of the Americans in killed, wounded and prisoners was about 300, most of the garrison escaping in the darkness, which came on rather suddenly. Above the boom the Americans had two frigates, two gallies and an armed sloop. When the forts had fallen the crews of these vessels set sail, and slipping their cables, attempted to escape up the river, but the wind was adverse and they were finally obliged to abandon them. Before doing so, however, the vessels were set on fire and were soon destroyed. Judge Jones, in his history of New York, states that these vessels had at the time 150 Loyalists on board, who were confined below the decks in irons. They had, it appeared, been used as prisons for the confinement of Loyalists. After the fashion followed throughout the revolutionary struggle by the rebels, Judge Jones states that when the ships were set on fire by their crews, the Loyalists were not released, but were allowed to perish in the flames. Mr. Edward Floyd de Lancey, in a note to Judge Jones’ history, says: "What authority the author had for his statement that 150 men were burnt, is not known, and it is hoped and believed that he was misinformed."

It is very unlikely that a man of the high character of Judge Jones would have made such a charge against the Americans if he had not known it to be true, and there is nothing in the story at all inconsistent with their general conduct which, throughout the war, was marked by a degree of malignity, cruelty and bad faith that would have disgraced the savages of the forest.

The capture of these two forts was a heavy blow to the American cause. They contained 67 pieces of cannon, and 30 more were in the vessels that were destroyed. The British also captured in the two forts a vast quantity of ammunition and stores of various kinds. The obstruction in the river which had cost the Americans a quarter of a million dollars, were destroyed in a few hours by the men of the British fleet. Fort Constitution on the east side of the river was abandoned without firing a shot, and so the way was clear for Clinton to go to the relief of Burgoyne. Clinton’s should have been to march at once to Albany without any delay, and if they had done so success would have been assured. General Putnam who had command of the east tide of the river, wrote to Gates on this occasion, saying: "I cannot flatter you or myself with the hope of preventing the enemies advancing, therefore prepare for the worst. The militia of Connecticut came in yesterday and the day before in great numbers, but l am sorry to say they already began to run away. The enemy can take a fair wind, and with their flat bottomed boats, which have all sails, go to Albany or half moon, with great expedition, and I believe without opposition." General Vaughan, with a small squadron of light vessels, and a considerable body of troops, did proceed up river far the purpose of destroying vessels and public property, while General Tryon, with 900 men destroyed the barracks at Continental Village, which had been occupied by a part of Putnam's troops. Vaughan's force reached Kingston on the 13th, and destroyed public property there. But he did not proceed any farther, although almost within touch of Gates. A little more energy, and Burgoyne would have been relieved, and the catastrophe of Saratoga would not have taken place. It seems, however, as if throughout the campaign in America, everything went adversely to the British cause. Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York on the 11th of October, for more troops, and on the 13th embarked again for Fort Clinton with reinforcements enough to increase the numbers of the army up the Hudson river to about 6,000 men. After long delays Clinton seems to have really made up his mind to do something, but on the 16th a dispatch reached him from General Howe, giving him an account of the battle of Germantown, and demanding 4,500 more troops. As this order had to be obeyed, Clinton had to abandon his Hudson river expedition, and so the destruction of Burgoyne's army was made certain.